Study: Political violence, not climate change, to blame for rising hunger in Africa

After years of progress in the fight against hunger, food insecurity is again a growing problem in Africa, where famine threatens millions of people — new research suggests prolonged violence is to blame.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where the problem is especially pronounced, many experts have traditionally blamed climate change and an increase in the frequency of extreme droughts for the expanding crisis.

To better understand the primary driver of hunger in the region, researchers took a focused, granular view of the problem, teasing out links between hunger and a variety of factors, including precipitation, locusts and political violence.

The analysis, published Thursday in the journal Nature Food, showed the effects of droughts and flooding on food security in Africa has remained mostly stable during recent decades.

While extreme weather undoubtedly impacts access to food, researchers found the effect of extreme weather on hunger has declined in many parts of Africa.

On the other hand, increases in widespread, long-term violence and warfare has fueled steady increases in famine. Political violence has displaced thousands of people, fueled spikes in food prices and in some cases, prevented the transport of food aid.

“Colloquially, people would say it’s climate-induced droughts and floods, because that’s what people tend to say,” study leader Weston Anderson said in a press release.

“But academics have not compared the importance of drought to violence in triggering food crises in a holistic way,” said Anderson, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

For the study, researchers relied on data collected between 2009 and 2018 as part of the Famine Early Warning System, a USAID-funded network that gathers data on hunger to warn policy makers about impending food crises in vulnerable nations.

Data collected by the network showed the number of people in Africa requiring emergency food aid increased from 48 million in 2015 to 113 million in 2020.

By tracking changes in weather and political stability across 14 nations most hard hit by the growing hunger crisis — a band stretching west-to-east from Mali and Nigeria to Kenya and Somalia — researchers were able to identify the primary drivers of famine across sub-Saharan Africa.

While the data showed droughts can cause periodic dips in food supply, leading to increases in hunger, researchers found farmers were typically able to recover by the following growing season.

Prolonged political violence and regional warfare, however, have led to long-term increases in hunger. Ongoing conflicts between state armies, guerrilla groups and terrorists have led to regional food shortages year after year.

Authors of the new study suggest the impacts of violence on hunger are most evident in places like northeast Nigeria, where Boko Haram continues to carry out guerrilla attacks on both government forces and local civilians, and South Sudan, where a complex civil war has caused large numbers of people to go to bed hungry.

In Syria, some researchers have argued prolonged droughts, which forced thousands of people from the countryside and into cities, sparked the political instability that triggered the region’s ongoing civil war.

But when researchers looked at whether droughts themselves have triggered political violence in Africa, thus fueling further hunger, they found no evidence of such a feedback loop.

“We found no systematic relation between drought and either frequency of conflict or deaths related to conflict,” the authors write. “Conflict may be affected by environmental stress in some cases but the relationship across Africa in recent decades is complex and context-specific.”

As climate change continues to stress natural resources, researchers suggest food policy experts must consider the impacts of ongoing political violence in some of the world’s most food-insecure nations.

“The overall message is that if we’re going to predict and handle food crises, we need to be paying attention to conflicts, which can be really complicated — not just the more easily identified things like drought,” said Anderson.

“Droughts have a clear start and a clear end. But there are all kinds of violence. And a lot of the time, there is no clear start or end to it,” he said.

Anderson added that warfare is certainly behind surging hunger in other parts of the world that the team did not examine, offering an obvious example of the civil war raging in Yemen.

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